The Scouts Ask: Gay or Nay?

Last week, the Boy Scout leadership did something very smart: It announced its policy change on gays in Scouts during an overwhelming news week, when almost no one would pay attention. 

Now let’s give it the ridicule it deserves. The Scouts say they will propose to the voting members of the Boy Scouts of America’s national council—nearly 1,500 of them who will meet in Texas the week of May 20—that the organization allow openly gay Scouts. But that openness will last only until a Boy Scout is 21. Openly gay adults will still be banned as Scout leaders. 

Various different ideologies could underlie this “compromise.” One is the blood libel that has long been levied against gay folks: that because we can’t “reproduce naturally,” we recruit by luring children into our ranks via molestation or temptation, and that allowing us near children is like inviting drug dealers to hang out on school playgrounds. Another is the idea that we are faultily gendered: that gay men are insufficiently manly, and lesbians insufficiently womanly, to be healthy adult models for either sex role. In this view, gay men are failing at their God-given task of being in charge of a family, while lesbians are failing our God-given task of following some man. A third viewpoint is less coherent: In this one, we are simply morally defective somehow, twisted in ways that should not be modeled to children lest we pass on whatever made us this way. Whatever the reasoning—and “reasoning” may be the wrong word, because the attitude is often felt rather than thought out—the underlying message is the same: Adult lesbians and gay men embody moral danger and will lead children astray. Gay kids, by contrast, are innocent, still mucking around figuring themselves out. For them, there’s still hope of being redeemed. 

Until now, the Scouts have essentially had a ”don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: You could be a gay Scout or gay Scout leader as long as you kept it to yourself. If you skulked around and lied, you were fine. But act as if being gay is nothing to be ashamed of—like Jennifer Tyrell, the stay-at-home mom whom other Cleveland parents were happy to have as their Cub Scout den mother, or Ryan Andresen, the Eagle Scout applicant who felt that being an Eagle Scout required him to be open and honest about his sexual orientation—and boom, you get the boot.

To say that the Scouts have been under pressure to change the policy would be an understatement. Just 13 years ago, the Supreme Court told James Dale (represented by Evan Wolfson, then of Lambda Legal) that the Boy Scouts could keep him out for being gay because they were a private organization and had the right to decide what their beliefs were—that, essentially, they had the right to be wrong. The response then was some opining and some eye-rolling, but little real pressure on the Scouts to change. Laws against same-sex intimacy were still constitutional, and much of the country was reacting against Vermont’s imminent recognition of same-sex couples via that shocking innovation, “civil unions”; state after state was busily passing laws that declared no such beast would be recognized within that state’s borders. 

This time around, things are different. The world has changed dramatically. Much of the country, and much of the establishment, now believe that gay and lesbian rights are a just and urgent civil-rights cause. We’re on the verge of winning federal recognition for our marriages at the Supreme Court, and Rhode Island is becoming the tenth marriage-equality state, sealing up New England. So there’s been enormous pressure, out front and behind the scenes. Members of the Scouts’ executive board have been lobbied intensively to change their policy. Corporate leaders like AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson have come out in favor of repealing the ban. As The New York Times reported:

Supporters of lifting the ban include several prominent Scouting board members, corporate funders, President Obama and his Republican challenger in last year's election Mitt Romney, several U.S. senators, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others. Petitions purportedly bearing 1.4 million signatures were presented at Scouting headquarters in Texas.

In blue states, schools and liberal religious organizations have refused to let the Scouts meet on their grounds, in keeping with their nondiscrimination laws and policies. The California legislature is considering a bill that would end the Scouts’ tax exemption unless it repeals the gay ban.

However, there’s also real financial pressure from the other side. According to CBS News, about 70 percent of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by a religious group; one-fourth of all Scout troops are sponsored by the Mormon and Catholic churches alone. And while a growing majority of Americans believe same-sex couples should be allowed to wed, that still leaves more than 40 percent of the country opposed—and they don’t want homos left in charge of their kids, or anyone’s kids, for that matter. 

Let me pause here and point out a cheap shot that I am not going to take. Last fall, the Los Angeles Times did an impressive investigation showing how, in the newspaper’s words, “Boy Scouts helped alleged child molesters cover tracks”:

Over two decades, the Boy Scouts of America failed to report hundreds of alleged child molesters to police and often hid the allegations from parents and the public.

A Los Angeles Times review of 1,600 confidential files dating from 1970 to 1991 has found that Scouting officials frequently urged admitted offenders to quietly resign — and helped many cover their tracks.

It is important to finally hold the organization to account. But let’s remember that just about no one, during the 1970s and 1980s, understood anything about child sex abuse. No organization was doing a good job because the country didn’t yet get how damaging these offenses were—or how persistent the predilection could be. 

Yet it is offensive that the only thing the Scouts appeared to have learned from this expose was to continue to conflate “gay” with “pedophile.” The Centers for Disease Control has issued clear and useful guidelines for keeping children in youth organizations safe from sexually predatory adults—and keeping out gay men is nowhere to be found. 

Instead of accepting the gay-OK-till-21 recommendation, I hope that the Scout assembly at large will instead find a way to move forward on the earlier trial-balloon policy. A few months back, the Scouts let out the suggestion that perhaps each troop could decide its policy on gay members and leaders for itself. That was, I thought, a brilliant compromise, a kind of federalism that would allow each troop to remain in sync with its community’s attitudes. Such a policy would make it possible for individuals locally to lobby and educate their neighbors and friends. Mormon-sponsored troops could live by their own strictures, while the Unitarians or some other group could independently sponsor a gay-welcoming troop across town. That policy would allow the Scouts’ ban to fade slowly, along with anti-gay attitudes, until they were ready to flush it away as an embarrassment. In the meantime, yes, individual gay kids would be marooned in hostile troops as they realize that they might be, you know, like thatbut no matter the policy, you know that those troops (and the families that are putting their kids in them) are not yet going to be welcoming, no matter what the Scouts’ official policy might be. 

Our nine-year-old has been agitating to join the Boy Scouts. He longs for the badges and for another way (besides his multiplicity of sports teams) to hang out with boys and men. I wish we could send him. But if the message the Scouts want to deliver is that his moms (and all lesbian and gay adults) have cooties, we will be sending him somewhere else instead.

Meanwhile, the world continues to move in a single direction on accepting the idea that it’s just fine to love someone of the same sex. Yesterday, the Nevada Senate voted to repeal the statewide constitutional ban on marriage equality; now it goes to the house. Both Rhode Island and Delaware moved forward bills to open marriage to same-sex pairs. This month, France, New Zealand, and Uruguay all passed same-sex marriage laws. Which means that here’s the bigger problem for the Scouts: How far out of step with the times do they want to be?


I agree with whats said in this piece, but what can be said about the Boy Scouts feeling that they are losing their life blood (funding/sponsors) just because of their beliefs? Is that fair?

I disagree with their beliefs on homosexuality and scouts/leaders, btw.

As a former Eagle Scout, I must state that, while I share E.J.'s aims of getting the BSA to allow both gay boys and gay adult troop leaders, I respectfully disagree with her conclusions regarding the current compromise that is being floated. She wants it all, NOW. I understand her desire, but that is rarely how the politics on issues this controversial work. Often, it is better to go for solid, incremental progress rather than to try to get everything at once. Consider this: There is still very strong opposition by conservative elements in the BSA to allowing ANY gay person, youth or adult, to serve. If we try to get everything now, there is a very real chance that we will lose the vote at the BSA National Council. Even if we were to win the vote, there is a very real chance that conservative organizations, who sponsor large numbers of troops, would pull out of the BSA and form alternative youth organizations. Do we want to be allowed aboard a sinking ship? The compromise of only allowing gay youth substantially increases our chances of winning the National Council vote without splintering the BSA. There are several reasons for this: 1) Because the BSA considers abstinence before marriage to be one of its values (to my knowledge), the BSA can plausibly claim that it is allowing gay youth to be members without allowing or promoting homosexual behavior (all youth should be celibate). This would be consistent with the values of some of the major conservative sponsors of BSA troops, such as the Roman Catholic Church,
which recognizes that sexual orientation is not chosen, but considers homosexual behavior to be a sin. In support of this argument, the Mormon church, which sponsors a very large number of troops, announced today that it is on board with the youth only compromise, undoubtedly for the reasons articulated above; 2) Allowing gay adult male troop leaders raises an additional issue, as well: These (non-pedophile) adult males will be attracted to some of the boys. This is only natural, as many older teenage boys are fully developed physically. However, this issue is undoubtedly making some otherwise supportive people squeamish. After all, to my knowledge, adult men are not allowed to lead troops of older Girl Scouts for reasons that surely include this issue. I already have seen several conservative leaders, such as Tony Perkins, make this argument. I think that, in the end, this issue will probably prove to be fairly minor, given that most of the boys in a BSA troop are heterosexual, and wouldn't be attracted to a gay male leader (unlike girls in a Girl Scout troop, who are quite capable of getting attracted to an adult male leader). However, it will take a while for people to get less squeamish about this issue.

As to the argument that we should allow individual troops (or Scout Councils) to decide for themselves whether to admit gay youths and allow gay adult leaders, this compromise would undoubtedly represent an advance. However, it could prove to be problematic for several reasons: 1) Previous court decisions have allowed the BSA to discriminate against gays as a private organization as long as this discrimination is the expression of a "core" value. How will the BSA be able to claim that not allowing gays is the expression of a core value if it allows some, but not all, troops to have gay youths and gay leaders? The youth only option is more defensible legally in that the BSA can credibly say that youth in its organizations can't be sexually active. However, it could probably be presumed that openly gay adult troop leaders are sexually active. Don't think that voting conservative members of the National Council aren't aware of this; 2) The local option could ultimately prove to be more problematic in the end in terms of ending ALL discrimination in the BSA than the local option. Conservative factions/troops might prove to be strong enough to keep such a local option going for many years, and since such troops wouldn't have any openly gay members, they wouldn't get the kind of experience with gays that would lead them to change their mind on this issue. Liberals might not push the issue too hard since some troops would allow gays. I think the issue would resolve differently under the gay youth only compromise. If this compromise is adopted, there would soon be quite a few openly gay Scouts of high rank in troops. Once these Scouts became adults, some would want to stay with their troops as adult leaders. This would make for great political theater for our side ("Good enough to be an Eagle Scout, but not good enough to be an adult leader?"), and would probably generate enough additional pressure to force the BSA to lift the ban on adult leaders, as well.

dpwid fine comment gets to the heart of any change the BSA makes. The Dale decision (BSA v v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000)) allows the anti-gay discrimination only because the BSA claimed being anti-gay was a core value of their organization. This decision is a reasonable one. After all, Catholics should be able to exclude non-catholics from membership in their churches, Democrats should be able to exclude registered Republicans from their party, and even the KKK should be allowed to exclude Black members. As long as people are exercising the Constitutional right to assemble around a specific issue or set of issues, they need to be allowed to discriminate based on that issue or the entire point of the organization is lost. Thus, as unpalatable as the Dale decision was, it was correct as long as the BSA made not being gay a core value. It is a stupid core value and made them seem like a group of small minded bigots, but that was their choice.

However, the moment the BSA allows young people to be gay and a member, the fight is over. At that point, being anti-gay is not a core value and the BSA loses the protection to discriminate found in Dale. Therefore, I don't care if the National Council only votes to allow only gay youth or allows gays at all levels, the net effect will be the same: gays cannot be excluded from leadership positions. Accomplishing this may take a lawsuit or two, but the case of Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984), will make the distinction between gay youth and gay leaders impossible. Either being anti-gay is a core value, and then the BSA can discriminate, or it is not, in which case it will be subject to laws of general applicability, including prohibitions against discrimination.

There are many states that still allow discrimination against gays, but that will be harder and harder to maintain in light of the looming and likely decision in US v. Windsor (Docket No. 12-307). So, let the Scouts take a half step. A baby step here will be a giant leap forward in the end.

Nice comments, MacAdvisor. At one level, I hope that you're right, and that allowing any openly gay youth whatsoever will ultimately cause a court to order the BSA to allow openly gay adult leaders as well. However, I wonder if the BSA is floating the youth only compromise because it does NOT believe that this is true. Perhaps the Scouts could claim that their real core value is a belief that homosexual behavior, as opposed to homosexual orientation, is what is morally wrong. They could say that they used to think that all homosexuality (both orientation and behavior) was morally wrong, but that they have changed their beliefs given the increasingly powerful evidence that sexual orientation is not chosen and rarely changes. Thus, their core belief has evolved to simply believing that the behavior is wrong. This would allow the BSA to admit gay youths, who they can presume (and require) to be celibate, since celibacy before marriage is one of their other core beliefs. Gay adults, however, could probably be presumed to be homosexually active, thus violating the core belief on homosexual behavior, and thus could be excluded. You might be right that this would not fly legally. However, I wonder if the Scouts could protect themselves from a court challenge by allowing openly gay adults as leaders if they have signed a formal pledge to be celibate. Of course, most self-respecting gays would not sign such a pledge, and would thus be excluded from adult leadership positions. This type of compromise has some precedent, in that several moderately conservative Christian organizations have allowed gay ministers as long as they promised to be celibate. Of course, gays could sign such a pledge, while not intending to abide by it. This would not be particularly honorable, though, and would create a situation not much different from the current don't ask, don't tell situation. The immediate issue for us is how to win a vote at the National Council. If we don't win a vote there, then gays will continue to be legally excluded from the BSA. The trick is how to get enough conservatives on board (even if they are holding their noses), or at least to get them to quiet down enough on their opposition, to win the vote. Then, if we win the vote, we don't want huge numbers of conservatives bolting (a few would undoubtedly leave). The problem here is the really hard core conservative groups, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, which sponsors large numbers of troops, particularly in the South. To them, ANY compromise that allows gay people who are obviously sexually active (in a relationship, etc.) is COMPLETELY unacceptable, at least in their troops. They will undoubtedly vote against even the youth only compromise, but if they lose, will they leave the BSA? The problem for them is that it's the BSA that has the history, the mystique, and the brand, and recognition throughout the US and the world. Any new group they set up would not be comparable for quite some time. Thus, they probably will be reluctant to leave as long they can plausibly claim that no one will be allowed in any of their troops (youth or adult) who is openly in a gay relationship. I personally think that the national leadership of the BSA has been in intensive talks with all the different factions, and is proposing the youth only compromise because they are getting a sense that the far right is not going to totally bolt if it passes (no matter how much grumbling there is). However, my experience is that the right-wing leaders are very smart people, no matter how misguided I may think that they are, and they going to go nuclear if they think that the youth only compromise is going to lead directly to adult gay leaders in the BSA by court order. Thus, I bet that the BSA legal counsel, or their own legal counsel, is telling them that it won't. However, this is speculation on my part.

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